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Archive for the ‘asbestos’ Category

Asbestos saga proves our feeble press watchdog has no bark and no bite

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“Getting a PCC isn’t great but all it is, is just a little apology… you get a slap on the wrist… and the PCC is run by the newspaper editors” (5m 09s) – News of the World journalist secretly filmed by ‘Starsuckers’

From Guest post at The Lay Scientist, Guardian blogs

Back in February, the Daily Mail published an article denouncing “The Great Asbestos Hysteria”, and claiming that the health risks had been grossly exaggerated by “the BBC, profiteering lawyers, and gullible politicians”.

The article was a response to a study raising concerns about the ongoing dangers of asbestos in UK schools. Those dangers were, the Daily Mail assured us, “all but non-existent”. While many older school buildings still contained asbestos, almost all of it was “relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre”. The threat from such products was so “vanishingly small” that a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had concluded that the danger was “insignificant”, with “arguably zero” risk of lung cancer.

Good news all round, then. No need for schools to worry about that crumbling asbestos roof. No need, we might think, for maintenance workers to wear protective clothing when renovating old school buildings. No need, it would seem, to employ specialist contractors to assess whether to leave asbestos undisturbed or get it removed. Those guys are, in any case, according to the Mail, a “commercial racket” with a “vested interest in exaggerating the dangers of products which are, in effect, harmless”.

Last week, seven months after the article was published, the Daily Mail issued a carefully worded correction:

“…The HSE assessments related to specific levels of exposure to white asbestos fibres, not white asbestos products, and found a risk from higher levels. The article said that asbestos in UK schools is almost all white. According to the HSE the more harmful brown asbestos was also frequently used in schools…”

Not such good news. What many reading the Daily Mail article won’t have known is that the author, Christopher Booker, has a long track record of downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. Though not a scientist himself, Booker has written at least 42 newspaper articles on this subject since 2002, making claims that run counter to the views of most experts, but are remarkably similar to those of the asbestos industry.

Several of the claims in the Daily Mail article – including that an HSE study once concluded the health risks of white asbestos cement were “insignificant” – have previously appeared in Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column, prompting a series of direct rebuttals from the HSE. The available evidence, as assessed by – among others – the World Health Organisation, the UK and US governments, and the European Union, is that white asbestos poses a serious risk to human health that needs to be carefully managed.

If the experts are right about asbestos and Booker is wrong, then this matters for at least two reasons. Firstly, there’s a danger that people may take unnecessary risks when handling the stuff, with potentially deadly consequences a couple of decades down the line. In 2008, a survey by the British Lung Foundation found widespread ignorance about the health risks, with under a third of tradespeople – the group most at risk of exposure – aware that it could cause cancer, and 28% “mistakenly assuming that some levels of asbestos are safe”. Further misinformation surely won’t help.

Secondly, for those affected by asbestos-related disease, ill-informed media reports belittling the health risks can be offensive and upsetting. I got the smallest glimpse of what that must be like when I saw that my blog had been linked to from a Facebook group set up by mesothelioma sufferers in response to Booker’s Daily Mail article.

Several members of the group had decided to report the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission, for breaching section 1 of the PCC’s ethical code: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. I’ve been following Booker’s antics for a while – I researched his work in detail for my book Don’t Get Fooled Again, and still write about him from time to time on my blog. So I decided to support the Facebook campaigners – and test out the PCC’s claim to be “fast, free and fair” – by putting in a complaint of my own.

It wasn’t difficult to produce evidence debunking the Mail’s assertion that white asbestos was “relatively harmless”. Back in 2002, the HSE had published a summary, with references, of the peer-reviewed research linking the material to mesothelioma and lung cancer. The newspaper’s claim that an HSE study had found the dangers of white asbestos cement to be “insignificant” was also easy to disprove: Booker had made the self-same claim in the Sunday Telegraph back in 2008, and been rebutted in detail by the HSE.

Neither was it hard to show that the Mail had got it wrong in claiming that “it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre” from white asbestos cement. An HSE lab report from 2007 notes that “the claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer”.

In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. According to the PCC’s code, “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body.

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail’s executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker’s views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that “those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians”. For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you’re wondering) of being “allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby”, who “stand to benefit financially” from the “anti-asbestos campaign”.

Rather than take ownership of the process, assess the various bits of evidence and come to a judgement, the PCC instead asked me to go through this new set of claims and produce a further response. Here I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC. If a newspaper digs in its heels and simply denies all the evidence that’s been presented, there doesn’t seem to be much that the PCC can do except bat the issue back to the complainant.

It was at this stage that I learned that the asbestos campaigner Michael Lees had also submitted a detailed complaint. Michael, who has been working to highlight the dangers of asbestos in schools since losing his wife Gina, a teacher, to mesothelioma, had been singled out by name – the third time that Booker had done this. Michael took particular exception to the dismissive terms in which the article had referred to his wife’s death, adding to the offence of a previous piece in which Booker had dubbed the case “bizarre”. He was also concerned that – aside from Booker’s views on white asbestos – the article sidestepped the fact that many schools still contain large amounts of brown asbestos, whose dangers are beyond dispute.

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of. The newspaper agreed to make some amendments to the text of the article, publish a short correction, and write a private apology to Michael Lees over Booker’s comments about his wife. But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity. “Free”, perhaps – but hardly “fast”, or “fair”.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again – The Skeptic’s Guide to Life. www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled

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Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

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Earlier this week the BBC’s Today Programme reported a rise in the number of teachers, doctors and nurses dying from the incurable cancer mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals. The programme highlighted the case of Mary Artherton, a former nurse who had been diagnosed with the disease after working in three hospitals where asbestos was present.

“I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news”, she told the BBC. “I’d nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely.”

The BBC had previously highlighted a new campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to raise awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure among plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople:

The HSE says research suggests exposure kills on average six electricians, three plumbers and six joiners every week and it fears those numbers could grow in the future because of complacency.

It believes only one in 10 current tradesmen recognises the danger and is launching a campaign to raise awareness.

The HSE’s new campaign was also publicised by the UK’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK:

When a person comes into contact with asbestos, they breathe in tiny fibres of the substance and these can irritate and damage the cells lining the lung. Up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos, and the risk is greatest among tradesmen who can be exposed to the substance at work. According to the HSE, at least 4,000 people die as a result of asbestos every year. But scientists believe this rate could rise, since people who have been exposed usually do not develop mesothelioma for between 15 and 40 years. The organisation’s new campaign, ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’, is designed to improve awareness among tradesmen, many of whom underestimate the risk that asbestos still poses despite the ban.

In response to the BBC’s coverage, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has written his 41st article misrepresenting the science around asbestos, and accusing the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos exposure:

Last week, the BBC was again publicising the latest scare over asbestos, launched by the Health and Safety Executive and supported by all those who stand to benefit by it, from asbestos removal contractors to ambulance-chasing lawyers (and the trade unions which get £250 for every referral to solicitors specialising in compensation claims).

In the article, Booker also repeats his false claim that the HSE had previously described the risks of white asbestos cement as “insignificant or zero”.

In previous articles he has repeatedly misrepresented one paper by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton, which he says drew such a conclusion. The editor of the journal which published that study recently commented here that:

“The paper does not say that the risks from asbestos cement are probably insignificant – it uses this phrase for the chrysotile risks at the lowest exposures. At higher (but still low) exposures, the authors gave estimates of lung cancer risk about 30-40 times lower than those from crocidolite, and did not regard this as insignificant..

The 500 times difference… may apply to the relative risk of mesothelioma, a much less important disease than lung cancer in chrysotile exposure…”